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Gladstone shares joy of ‘Killers’ Oscar nomination

Seattle-area Native actor starred with DiCaprio

By Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times
Published: February 17, 2024, 6:03am
2 Photos
Lily Gladstone at the 81st Annual Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 7 in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Lily Gladstone at the 81st Annual Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 7 in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Time) Photo Gallery

At the moment Lily Gladstone learned she had been nominated for an Academy Award for best actress in Martin Scorsese’s drama “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the first Native American performer to do so, she was in two beloved places at once.

Physically, she was on the Osage reservation in Oklahoma, where her character Mollie Burkhart had lived and where the events of the film — a true story from the 1920s — were set. “I wanted to be as close to Mollie as I could get if the good news did come,” Gladstone said, in a telephone interview a few days after the nomination announcement. “Because I owe it to her and her community.”

And as the nominations were read, very early on the morning of Jan. 23, Gladstone was also FaceTiming with her parents, who live north of Seattle. (Gladstone, born in Montana on the Blackfeet reservation, moved here with her family while in middle school and graduated in 2004 from Mountlake Terrace High School. Though she’s been “pretty nomadic” in recent years — living in various cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Vancouver, B.C., for work — her parents’ home is still her “crash landing pad.”)

Her mother had the camera filming the TV announcement, and Gladstone asked her to turn it around to capture their faces. “I wanted to learn the news from their reactions,” she said, describing how her parents supported her career from its earliest days. “They were just so committed to me always. It was their win too.”

It was doubly meaningful for Gladstone to share the joy of the moment both with her parents and with Osage friends. She had felt a deep connection to the role of Mollie Burkhart since the day she was offered it — which turned out to be Mollie’s birthday.

An Osage woman born in 1886, Mollie was a survivor of the Osage murders in 1920s Oklahoma, in which many members of her family were killed. “Killers of the Flower Moon,” based on David Grann’s nonfiction book, places Mollie and her husband, Ernest (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), at the center of the story. Gladstone conveys Mollie’s inner strength in a series of remarkable scenes; she often gazes at the camera as if willing it to tell her the truth.

Gladstone, who Scorsese had seen in the 2016 film “Certain Women,” was surprised by how quickly she was offered the role. In a career that primarily has encompassed theater work (much of it in the Seattle area) and small independent films, this was her first with such a high profile.

She and DiCaprio had only had one Zoom meeting, but “Marty so immediately knew that he wanted the three of us to collaborate on that relationship based on how that meeting went.” It was, she said, a short meeting, “just visiting,” but the chemistry was there from the beginning, marking the start of “a really awesome little friendship” with DiCaprio that continues to this day. (She’s disappointed DiCaprio wasn’t recognized by the Academy with a nomination; for her, she said, “he’s always going to be best actor.”)

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Gladstone was at her parents’ home when she got the call saying the role of Mollie was hers and immediately found fertile ground for her performance: a picture of her great-grandmother Lily, her father’s grandmother, on the mantelpiece.

Gladstone’s great-grandmother and Mollie would have been of the same era, and Gladstone said, “I remember thinking: ‘It’s like Mollie is someone’s great-grandma, Mollie is someone’s grandma, so treat her and approach her the way you would expect someone to carry your grandma Lily.’ So immediately there was this love that was informed by how much my father just loved his grandma Lily and how much she connected him to a sense of identity. … There’s so much about Mollie that is similar to Grandma Lily.”

“Killers of the Flower Moon” made its debut at the Cannes International Film Festival last May, with immediate buzz for Gladstone’s powerful performance. It was the kind of role that could cause an immediate career boost — but in this case, that boost had to wait a bit, as the SAG-AFTRA strike began in the summer and continued through November, past the film’s October theatrical opening.

“There was a long period when I was just assured by my reps that there were [offers] coming in, but they couldn’t tell me what they were because of the strike,” Gladstone said.

Aware of how important it was to follow up “Killers” with the right project, she thought carefully before selecting her next film: “The Memory Police,” an adaptation of Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s science fiction novel in which Gladstone will star as a novelist trying to write a book while enduring a strictly enforced collective amnesia. (Ogawa’s book was initially published in 1994 but wasn’t released in an English translation until 2019, becoming a National Book Award and International Booker Prize finalist.)

“I’m so excited!” Gladstone said, sounding thrilled. “It’s just perfect.” Reed Morano (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) will direct; Scorsese and Ogawa will executive produce.

Before that project gets underway, Gladstone is looking forward to the Academy Awards ceremony March 10, for which she’s invited her parents to accompany her. (There’ll also be a watch party at the theater where Gladstone performed 20 years ago at Mountlake Terrace High; she’s looking forward to seeing video of the event.) And she’s processing the enormity of what has happened to her — a gift that sometimes feels “a little bit too much to carry as an individual … these great things have to be shared.”

She’s shared that gift with many: the Golden Globe audiences who saw her introducing herself in the Blackfoot language while collecting her award earlier this month; the Indigenous jewelry designers whose profiles she’s lifting by wearing their work on red carpets; the young Indigenous actors who might see in hers a career to emulate. Gladstone hopes that “Killers of the Flower Moon” is setting a precedent for upcoming Native American stories on screen. “Osage people were the voices of their story in this (film), and in a very, very substantial way,” she said, noting that while Scorsese and screenwriter Eric Roth aren’t Native American, many of the film’s most moving passages came from improvisation by its many Native actors.

The attention that she’s getting, Gladstone said, feels “a little circumstantial,” and she’s quick to point out that she stands on the shoulders of so many Native American performers before her. Her performance, she said, isn’t necessarily the best but “just the most recognized one at this point in time.”

Gladstone was especially touched by a TikTok video posted after her Globes win, in which a Blackfeet family is watching her speech.

“You can hear the dad saying it feels good to hear those words when I started speaking in Blackfeet, and you can hear this little 2-year-old speaking back to me to the screen — she starts talking Blackfeet back to me,” Gladstone said. At the end of the speech, the child said, “so’kaapii,” a Blackfeet word meaning “good.” The little girl’s mother, Gladstone said, wrote online “saying how wonderful that her daughter is growing up in a world where she’s hearing her language on TV and where Blackfeet women are succeeding. That’s just going to be normal for her.” Gladstone paused, remembering. “That’s just everything.”

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